This morning, a headline from Seattle’s KOMO 4 TV grabbed my attention: “Proposal would ban criminal background checks on job applicants.” Say what?
Once I got past the headline and read the article, I realized that I had been sucked in. Some news editor had written a misleading headline. There is no proposal underway in Seattle to “ban” background checks. But for casual readers (most readers, I would guess) it’s likely that they clicked on to the next article, thinking that criminal background checks were being outlawed.
In reality, Seattle councilman Bruce Harrell has introduced a proposal that would change the way Seattle employers screen employees, but not ban background checks outright. Councilman Harrell seems to think that people with criminal backgrounds are less likely to become repeat offenders if they get a job. His proposal would require employers to wait until later in the hiring process to ask about criminal history. (At least I think that’s what it says. I have yet to see the actual proposal, but a representative from Harrell’s office has promised to make it available to me.) His proposal sounds like the “ban the box” proposals we are seeing popping up all over the place, at the state and local level.
“What we’re saying is let’s look at the person. Let’s look at the human being, and then we make wise employment decisions from there,” Harrell said.
And I agree. But here is the problem– the way that this bill and other laws like it have been introduced and then covered by the media is already causing confusion for employers. Just read the 150 or so comments that follow the article. Much like the confusion surrounding the EEOC guidance, employers are wondering when they can ask about criminal history. At what stage in the process are they allowed to ask about a candidate’s record? Do they follow state or local laws, or do they follow the federal guidelines? How do they follow up with candidates, and how far must they go to keep a job open if criminal history is disclosed? And if they get sued for negligent hiring because they followed the rules and they get burned, who is going to pay for their defense? I think we all know the answer to that question.
I am in favor of re-entry programs, tax credits, and rehabilitation programs. I believe that some employers can benefit from bringing ex-offenders into their workforce, and those employers interviewed for the KOMO stories confirm that belief. But at a time when the EEOC guidance is making the criminal background process unbelievably complicated, local laws like the Seattle proposal and similar laws in Philadelphia and the State of Massachusetts further cloud the issue. And the media, as in this case, often gets the facts wrong. Some employers may simply throw up their hands. And that is not a good thing—not for employers, for communities, or for individuals. As always, I must close by pointing out that I work for an employment screening firm. I have a vested interest in the outcome. Employers, let me know what you think.